A funny thing that I have noticed about superstars is how rare it is to repeat success. There are many obvious examples from the ranks of corporate CEO’s, when many highly lauded executives have moved on to another opportunity only to meet abject failure. Robert Nardelli from GE to Home Depot, John Sculley from Pepsi to Apple, Carol Bartz from Autodesk to Yahoo are just a few of the more high profile examples. They all had varying length tenures, but they all suffered from the same problem. They had extensive skills but those skills did not translate in the new environment.
This skills vs. environment issue is something I have seen play out again and again across many types of roles and levels of responsibility. In a HR tech startup I co-founded, one project involved analyzing the executive training program for a Fortune 100 firm. The program trained highly prized recruits for two years to groom them for senior roles within one of the business units. However, many of the recruits had quit once the program concluded. It was discovered that people who stayed and thrived had one thing the other recruits did not have; a strong background in research and development. It did not matter that the recruits were Ivy League MBA’s with impeccable credentials or that the company was a highly respected firm that won numerous best employer awards. If the person did not fit well into the organization, the relationship never worked.
Studies bear out much of the dichotomy between a job candidate’s skills and long-term success. Leadership IQ looked into why newly hired employees fail and concluded that 89% failed for reasons other than not having the requisite skills for the job. Many of the factors cited such as motivation, temperament, communications and such all point to the fact that while skills are important, they may have less of a factor in job performance than we have come to expect.
One might be excused for coming to the conclusion that hiring is at best a crap shoot. Many of the tools that we have become familiar with seem to do a poor job at actually assessing talent. However, there are ways to reduce the risk of hiring failures by being aware of common traps one makes during the hiring process when evaluating candidates. The following three points cover the most egregious yet correctable mistakes when hiring for highly critical roles:
So, what is the most important lessons to take away from this? Do not underestimate the damage caused by the misalignment of culture in your hiring! It is a slow killer and something that is hard to recognize when you are under the impression that everyone around you is an “A player”. That is the heavy selection bias that colors our viewpoint when it comes to evaluating talent. We dismiss the poor hires as bad apples, disgruntled employees, or simply liars. On the other hand, we overestimate employees that we deem great hires as having superior skills. The reality is that being highly skilled is only part of the equation. Talent can only thrive when skills, culture, and goals meet.
This is not to say that there are not extraordinary people that seem to have that “A player” aura. Steve Jobs managed to resurrect his early career to become one of the most legendary business leaders of our generation. Richard Branson would be another excellent example of being massively successful in a number of endeavors. However, these are entrepreneurs that defy categorization. They are not people that are simply plugged into someone else’s culture; they create culture. They would never be people that you hire, because they are outsized personalities and overwhelming forces of charisma, energy, and conviction.
Do not get caught in the game of hiring A players and chasing talent. Have the strength of conviction that your culture and hiring process are sound. If you have a compelling vision, a promising product, and a good network, you can find talented people to join your team. The people that show genuine excitement about your idea, give up sleep and weekends and fat paychecks, and show initiative are your true A players. Those are the people that are going to stick it out with you when things are rough.
Resonated with my sports themed post from this morning on belief. The moral of the story is that the only way you learn is by doing.
This week was a prolific one on the Strong Opinions. We recommended that cats stop doing startups and stick with licking themselves, showed how to cyberstalk people, demonstrated egregious social media snobbery, cut down the digital content middlemen to size, exposed Christmas to be the 800lb gorilla of holidays, and showed salespeople to not be totally useless.
Since I know you did all your Christmas shopping ahead of time, there are no excuses for not catching up on these articles of mass awesomeness. Enjoy and happy reading!
There is an ongoing meme that successful tech CEO’s do not come from sales. The truth however is that plenty of salespeople went on to successful careers as CEO’s leading technology companies. Thomas Watson of IBM as well as six out of eight IBM CEO’s started in sales including current CEO Sam Palmisano. Some other notable salespeople that became successful CEO’s include John Hurd of Oracle and previously HP and NCR, Paul Otellini of Intel, John Chambers of Cisco, and Rob Dutkowsky of Tech Data.
From the technologists perspective, we tend to view salespeople as bombastic, shallow, dull-witted, non-intellectual, and devoid of any technical depth. The power of this myth is then confirmed by tech luminaries such as Steve Jobs, who famously took Microsoft to task for letting Ballmer run the company. His own experience during the Sculley years also added to Jobs’ contention that salespeople cannot run a tech company.
I believe this was true back in a few decades ago when building a technology company was the domain of engineers. Most great tech companies such as HP, Data General, Sun and the like were engineering companies throughout, run by techies for techies. The knowledge and skills to found a technology company required deeply technical experience.
The tide is turning however in the makeup of tech founders. The technology is simply more accessible and the easier to support. People with design backgrounds, Wall Street bankers, marketing pros, and other would be entrepreneurs are starting tech companies. While these may not be hardcore tech companies like database or security startups, they are technology companies all the same. Even sales and business development people are getting into the game.
That is not to say that salespeople clamber to become CEO’s or found companies. Excellent salespeople generally have little desire to move into management. For one, the upside is greater in a field sales role than in management. Second, many salespeople are not tapped for CEO roles because the best salespeople usually do not come with the pedigree. This usually means a combination of diverse work experience across multiple business functions and an MBA or other higher level graduate degree from a prestigious college.
Where do most CEO’s come from? Over 40% come from finance roles such as accounting. This makes sense given the importance placed on the financial numbers in business. Many accountants will get an MBA, work in the big accounting firms, build up an impressive coterie of high level industry clients, and then jump ship when a plumb executive opportunity arises. Other fields that are popular starting points for future CEO’s are marketing and consulting, again careers that are built with a diversity of experience and higher level education.
When a salesperson does lead or start a tech company, the successful ones are simply great leaders. They may not have the depth of experience in product or engineering, but they pull together the people that do. They set the culture of the company and emphasize the vision and values. They are absolutely focused on execution. And those traits translate to other founders and CEO’s that come from different career paths. Ultimately, it is not about being deep in technical or domain skill, it is being able to navigate the various disciplines, be enough of a generalist to grasp what the important points, and lead people towards a vision.
I am a Jets fan. Yes, please feel free to laugh at me. While the past couple of years have been fun, this year has bought to the forefront a troubling aspect of the team that was glossed over the past two years when the Jets went to back to back AFC championship games. In short, the team is inconsistent and it is not only my perceptions either.
The team certainly has the talent and experience and the strategy. However, the defense that is touted as elite routinely gets burned for 30 plus points a game. While Sanchez is now in his third year and has elite wide receivers, his performance at times has been woefully poor and his overall stats are not much better over last year. While the strategy is ground and pound, neither has been in evidence this season. While all the pieces seem to be there, the combination has not translated into consistent execution.
This is not really a post about football however. Inconsistency affects all teams at some point. This is different than trying something and having it fail. Failing is simply the process of gaining the experience that allows you to become consistent. This is about doing things that should be rote with people that should know what they are doing, but for whatever reason the results are mediocre at best.
Whether it is the Jets, a dysfunctional team, or a company on a losing streak, you may point to inconsistency, but it is not the reason. You see, inconsistency is not a cause, it is a symptom. What is happening in these cases is a lack of cohesion.
What is cohesion? The root word is “cohere” which the textbook defines it as a verb meaning to stick together or be united. That is an apt description for team chemistry. You are sticking together and uniting all the individual parts into a whole that is greater than the sums of its parts. Without cohesion, there is little hope in getting positive results and achieving goals because the whole is not united. While all the individual parts may function well on their own, as a group, nothing comes together in a way that is additive to the group dynamic. It is as if one day your brain decided to walk but your left leg decided to hop and right leg did high kicks. The result is that you are not going anywhere.
I see the lack of cohesion in the Jets and I see it in small startups. Everyone on the surface says they want the same thing, but motives and actions say differently. What is worse is that the lack of cohesion can remain dormant when things are going well, but quickly swell up to outsized proportions when bumps come along resulting in a combustible and explosive situation.
For this very reason, it is important not to underestimate the value of culture when putting together a team or a startup business. You can bring on superstars, but you need to bring them in so that their talents and attitude meshes with the whole and they can adopt the ethos and goals of the organization. Going back to the sports world, the team people look to as the epitome of consistency is the Yankees. Why is that? Because the organization trumps any one star and the culture is so strong that it keeps egos in check. The same holds true for the (hated) New England Patriots. They win because the whole team is on the same playbook and the objectives are very much clear.
If you are seeing that performance across the board is not to expectations, you might very well have a cohesion problem. Make sure you bring together the team and get firm commitment towards the goals. Probe deep to see if there are any areas of discontent or loss of enthusiasm or difference in motivations. Sometimes you need to play psychologist and other times you just need to lay down the law. In the event of a clear culture mismatch, you may need to part ways with some folks that are not meshing with the team. Lastly, take a look at yourself and evaluate your own performance and goals. It is worthwhile to get out of the building and get outside of the inner circle echo chamber just to get a fresh perspective.
The following job listing is on Yahoo!’s careers page
Executive Assistant to VP of Cultural Transformation
It seems Yahoo! has realized they have a culture problem and they have hired a VP (who needs support staff) to transform it. The problem with Yahoo!’s culture is they have too many VPs with support staff.
This is rich, Yahoo thinks that having managers to “transform culture” is going to fix their (horribly broken) culture. Maybe they can setup a “Culture Blue Ribbon Committee” and have “Culture Roadshows” with “Culture Townhalls” with their employees to have thoughtful discussions on the culture issue at Yahoo.
Give me a break. Culture comes from the top and it starts with the CEO. It cannot be fixed with career managers, or by hiring outside consultants, or by bringing in ping pong tables. No amount of casual Fridays and office birthday parties and spirit building activities is going to change culture. If the CEO is not committed to changing culture and actively promoting, living and eating that culture, nothing will change.
I think it is too late for Yahoo, just like it was too late for AOL by a decade. They are big corporations that will continue to exist because they are big, not because they have a culture that its employees are obsessive about. Oh Yahoo is right…
Another omnibus roundup on Strong Opinions where we talked about Moneyball and evaluating talent, ruminating on the word “disruption”, becoming an “expert”, using frames of reference, overthinking, overbuying tech, and fixing our college system. Check out what you missed from the past couple of weeks:
Enjoy and happy reading!
It starts with the frame of reference. This is not about me nerding out on the joy of physics, but a tool that I have used on a regular basis in understanding the dynamics of people and teams. You see, when you understand your people from their own perspectives, then you can build a strong company culture and a strong foundation for leading your startup*.
We all wish everyone was transparent and professional in the workplace. The reality of course is that is hardly ever the case, and this includes people in early stage startups. There are plenty of stories of startups that experienced epic blow-ups between co-founders, employees fired as quickly as they were hired, and battle royale team in-fighting. If you read into some of the startup post-mortems, you can even see hints of team dissention and chaos in between the lines.
It is best to head off these conflicts early. There are going to be missives, misunderstandings, and mistakes that occur as should be expected. It is a startup and things move fast and furious. Often times words are taken out of context or off the cuff remarks taken too literally. As the CEO, it is your responsibility to be on top of the group dynamic. You need to understand what is going on in the heads of every single person of your team.
You become the company chief psychologist through frames of reference. This is not mind reading, but a way of placing yourself in the shoes of others. By envisioning yourself in those shoes, you can begin to understand motive and behaviors that would otherwise lack context when you are simply looking at a situation from your own point of view.
Frame of reference is more than mere empathy though. Empathy is an important trait and a critical component of emotional intelligence. Relating to the feelings of others is the first part of learning to understand behaviors and connecting with people. The deeper analytical assessment of the situation however, divorced from pure emotion, is the real strength of using frames of reference.
There are three core elements of frames of reference:
The best way to employ these frames of reference is to foster a supportive and transparency company culture. As CEO, make it known that you are there to listen if there are problems or people need to talk. Make an effort to spend time with each and every person not talking about work. People should feel that regardless of the challenges in their own lives, that they have people at work that have their backs and can openly talk to.
Beware however in using the frames of reference method. This is not an opportunity to pry into the lives of your team nor is it a pass to excuse behavior detrimental to the business. Some people are simply not comfortable opening up at work, especially to someone that is their boss. Do not press the issue otherwise your efforts may backfire. There are also times when actions and performance are simply not acceptable, to the point that it is affecting co-workers and impacting business. In these cases, it is time for some tough love and laying out clearly on the job expectations.
Looking at the world through frames of reference is not an answer or a solution. Think of this rather as an approach to gain greater awareness of your work environment, to better relate to your teammates, and to prepare and accommodate for potential issues before they become problematic. There are enough challenges that sprout up in a startup, so it pays dividends to build a strong and cohesive team that can trust and depend on each other. By understanding others and their situations through their eyes, you can begin to foster that supportive company culture.
*NOTE There are other methods of leadership as well including acting like a micro-managing dictator, being the aloof visionary, or taking the hard-driving business results route, it is up to you to decide what type of work environment you want. Consider that culture impacts everything from hiring, business performance, customer relationships, business development, and the type of investors you take on, so choose wisely.